Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Perverted Commas?

Of the many accomplishments of the fiction-writer's art, dialogue is surely the least exalted, the literary equivalent of peeling onions during the course of preparing a grand feast. While theoretically it could call for quite as great a level of skill as the narrative that surrounds it, in practice it hardly ever displays evidence of any such effort, particularly in the contemporary novel. All too often, dialogue is simply the default way of maintaining a vague sense of momentum, or a recognition that, with any luck, the novel will end up as a film treatment anyway, and here is the embryonic screenplay ...
Stuart Walton on the Guardian blog has a sound-off about dialogue in modern fiction as:
... a fairly obvious bulking agent in the kind of writing that isn't about narrative drive ...
and has a go at writers (such as Iris Murdoch and Henry James) who:
... never got the hang of dialogue, but persisted anyway...
If so many writers fail at writing dialogue, as Mr. Walton suggests, why is it so hard to get it right? (And it is difficult! Many is the page of aborted conversation I've scrunched into the bin.)

Which writers do you think handle dialogue well? I love Roddy Doyle's dialogue in The Barrytown Trilogy (though Mr. Walton probably wouldn't have approved of the "rendering of accents" , and Magnus Mills' utterly banal conversations (used to great comic effect) in The Restraint of Beasts. Paul Auster also handles dialogue very well in The Brooklyn Follies where the plot is very much developed through conversations. Readers of the blog have plenty more suggestions to add in the comments.

And how do you prefer your dialogue to be punctuated? James Joyce took against what he called "perverted commas" preferring the long dash, while writers such as James Kelman, for example, use no punctuation marks at all, leaving the writer to work out where the conversation begins and ends. (I must say, I like this method the best.)


sympozium said...

Properly punctuated please. No dashes or italics or such. Reading Cry, The Beloved Country was a pain due to its use of dashes in place of quotation marks.
Elmore Leonard is widely regarded as the King of Dialogue...and I'd put Jackie Collins (in her prime) up there as well!

animah said...

Margaret Forster in Have the Men Had Enough.
Nabakov in Ada.
Anything by Roddy Doyle. Actually, anything by an anguished Roman Catholic Irishman/woman.
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby.
The Paul Auster that you blogged the other day - brilliant!
Andrea Levy, Small Island.
And let me say this, while I found dialogue to be the most fun part to write as a novice writer, I have discovered in trying to write a play - that it's SOOOO hard!!
Did you know that it is a well regarded fact that writers can either write plays well or novels well, but not both well. That could be why many novelists find dialogue tough. Apparently only one writer was highly regarded in both. Hazard a guess.
As for punctuation. I actually enjoy no punctuation - it teases the brain. My first introduction to it was Cry the Beloved Country when we did it for Form 4 Lit. Found it liberating.

Sufian said...


Samad Said?



Mr Ed?

sympozium said...

- yes, why limit one to dashes? Let's use *Where you going Tom?* or +Hi there+ or #Dammit all!# or @This is interesting@ or ^What are you saying?^ to denote dialogue. Or have a book with no dialogue at all, or the barest minimum, like so many of Marquez's stuff.

Alaon Paton's reason for using the dash was because he was lazy to keep using quotation marks as he was writing in longhand (true story).

KayKay said...

Larry McMurtry is a master at dialogue. The ratio of dialogue to description in his books are high. Read Lonesome Dove and Streets Of Laredo.
Julian Barnes' Arthur & George has a masterful scene of dialogue between Conan Doyle and a chief constable that is in a class of its own.
I think dialogue writing as a means of fleshing out a character is far more effective than mere description and yet I agree it's the hardest to pull off. You can write paragraphs describing a characters' racism, for example,but to reveal it via dialogue is a tricky prospect as it then cuts to the matter of what such a person would say in the course of a conversation to reveal to us, the reader, that he is indeed prejudiced. You can write "X disliked Asians" but X's character may not be the type who reveals this so bluntly in the course of a conversation.He would drop hints, allusions, intimations,drop an off the cuff remark, a throwaway line that gives his essential nature away.And putting the right words in a characters mouth and having him/her speak it convincingly requires a skilled writer indeed.And double kudos to writers who can do this with characters of the opposite gender!

Burhan said...

this is an extremely interesting post. might i also add that in french they normally use "<<" and ">>" instead of the inverted commas. i'm all for the idea that there is no real essential difference between the 'dialog' and 'nondialog' parts in any text. the distinction only creates a sort of vacuous hierarchy between 'spoken' and 'written' language -- which is why i think jose saramago's style is kinda cool. in reality i think most of syntactic framework behind the rules of punctuation is also vacuous.

when i want to see some cool ways to use dialog in english i usually watch tv or movies: quentin tarantino (influenced by elmore leonard), seinfeld, mike leigh (esp. 'naked'), howard hawks's screwball comedies (esp. 'his girl friday'), marx brothers, and any film based on a tennessee williams play.

speaking of mishima, he wrote something against using dialogue to indicate nuances of character. i'll see if i can dig it up and post it here.

animah said...

This post inspired me. Just come back from an eavesdropping session at the Kino cafe while I gobbled down lunch. For 20 minutes I scribbled whatever I heard from 2 different tables.
The line that jumped out at me was "the grandma ate toothpaste". For the next 20 minutes I wrote in free flow and without thinking a dialogue between 2 characters with that as a first line.
Quite enjoyed myself.
So what would your line following "the grandma ate toothpaste" be?

KayKay said...

"Grandma ate the toothpaste"
"She ATE the toothpaste"
"Nothing else at home"?
"Haven't shopped"
"What're you waiting for? For the old bat to progress on to gulping down the shampoo or spraying shaving foam down her mouth?"
" The idea was to starve her. Not considering the edible properties of bathroom products was my mistake"
"It would just be simpler to knock her on the head or suffocate her with a pillow"
"It's a thought"
" And it can't be pleasant coming home to a starving crone"
" True"
" So?"
"I feel the shits coming on. Let's discuss this when I get back"

..End of nonsensical free flow. And I have enjoyed myself too!

The Great Swifty said...

Random news about Ian McEwan reuniting with long-lost brother.

Madcap Machinist said...

kaykay -- LOL

it's just a question of style, isn't it? ok e e cummings don't answer that. Saramago's style is very appealing, makes for very quick reading. I just skim through Murakami's dialogue.

here's my flow, and let's see if punctuation changes anything...

the grandma ate toothpaste
through blue-veined bubbles her breath
a spring wind blowing


The grandma ate toothpaste;
Through blue-veined bubbles, her breath:
a spring wind blowing.

bibliobibuli said...

so enjoyed your responses to this, and your suggestions for other good writers of dialogue.

i forgot nick hornby, and andrea levy in "small island" - the jamaican voices really come through

damn! i forgot annie proulx!!!!!!!!!!

the gramndma eating the toothpaste thing cracked me up. kaykay might have the start of a short story here. or a short short even. and machinist, prefer the unpunctuated version actually - the lines themselves are a form of punctuation.

swifty - yes, i read that last night on another blog ... drama adheres to that guy ... i seem to remember another headline hitting incident about his privae life not so long ago

Ruhayat X said...

The grandma ate toothpaste 'cos she forgot to take her dentures out one night and, while sleeping, accidentally swallowed them.

Other mysteries of the universe solved for RM7.

Jeffrey Hardy Quah said...

I've liked how the dialogue of writers like Aaron Sorkin (West Wing), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, Sandman), Brian Azzarello (Torso), Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld) sounded. Some of it is highly stylised and not necessarily how real people might speak, but it reads and sounds great; they just seem to sing. Pratchett is especially great at writing accents, while Azzarello writes "ghettospeak" very well.

I've always wondered if training in screenwriting plays a part in it.

I usually have problems with writing "authentic" Malaysian-English dialogue (complete with lahs and whatnot) myself. I don't think I've ever read or heard anyone write them properly; they tend to overdo it, especially on radio ads.

Sharon said...

Larry McMurtry uses an extremely high volume of dialogue, and though I like his writing very much I don't find his dialogue very believable (especially in Terms of Endearment and its sequel).
Dialogue is difficult for me though.